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Flash Memory Moves onto the Desktop

Flash memory is moving from iPods to desktops and laptops, providing a performance boost and the potential for instant boot-ups.
March 22, 2007

For the most part, flash memory has been used in small audio gadgets such as iPods and in portable USB drives. But a recent flurry of announcements from flash chip makers Intel and Samsung, among others, show that the technology has reached a point at which it is finally economical to integrate a small amount of flash memory–from 128 megabytes to 8 gigabtyes–into laptops and desktops as a supplement to the magnetic hard drive. The benefit, say chip makers, is faster boot times, faster application start-ups, and impressive power savings.

In a flash: Intel’s new flash memory drive, which is about the size of a matchbook, replaces a magnetic hard disk drive and is meant for low-end and ultra-portable computing devices. The flash chip can have as much as eight gigabytes of memory.

Since flash memory, which is created from silicon, is based on solid-state electronics, there are no moving parts, which makes it faster and more energy efficient than the spinning magnetic disks used in hard drives. Because flash is faster, it can be employed to cache frequently used files and applications. And since it is nonvolatile memory, flash can be used to store the start-up files for a system when the power is off, so that a computer can boot up much faster.

Earlier this month, Samsung, which is a major flash manufacturer, began shipping a device called a hybrid drive, which integrates flash memory into the same package as the magnetic storage. The hybrid drive was developed with Microsoft, says Steve Weinger, flash marketing manager at Samsung, and it’s designed to take advantage of Vista’s ReadyDrive feature, software that recognizes when flash memory is available and transfers data to it that would usually be saved on a hard disk. For instance, the software would instruct the system to download frequently accessed files to a flash cache instead of to the hard drive. In addition, when a file is saved, it’s immediately saved to flash memory. When the memory reaches capacity, the data is sent to the hard drive at once, reducing the number of times the hard drive needs to spin up, saving time and power. Samsung’s hybrid drives, which come with either 128 or 256 megabits of flash, are designed for high-end consumer desktops and laptops that run Vista.

Within the past couple of years, Intel has expanded its products to include flash memory chips. The company is working on a flash chip called Robson–expected within the year–that is also designed to work with Vista features. As with Samsung’s hybrid drive, Intel’s system will be able to save energy by less frequently using a hard disk by keeping a cache in flash, says Greg Matson, product manager for Intel’s NAND flash group. Robson is designed for consumer and enterprise systems that run Vista. Unlike Samsung’s hybrid drive, which integrates flash into the disk, Robson flash will be integrated into the motherboard of a computer.

In addition, Intel, Samsung, and others are working to completely replace magnetic hard drives in certain systems. Last week, Intel announced a solid-state drive designed for low-end servers and inexpensive computers that require less than eight gigabytes of data. Also, earlier this week, electronics maker Fujitsu announced that it is offering a rugged system with 16 gigabytes and 32 gigabytes for a cost of $500 and $1,300, respectively. Fujitsu’s target markets are the health-care, aviation, and delivery industries, for which flash provides another advantage: because of its lack of moving parts, it’s sturdier than magnetic disks and less prone to damage in rough environments.

There are still challenges before flash really competes with computers’ hard drives. For one thing, it tends to wear out over time, as files are written and erased from memory sectors. Currently, flash is capable of 100,000 rewrites per cell, and specialized software has been developed to spread out the wear on flash chips, says Ethan Miller, professor of computer science at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

However, Miller says, this software might not be good enough when flash is used as a hard drive supplement or replacement because operating systems tend to frequently save numerous small files, such as error files or system logs. But as prices continue to fall, Miller adds, flash will become a more common option, and he expects that more and more systems will be designed with flash in mind.

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